You put your right foot in, you put your right foot out ... chances are you know the rest. But in Jerry Spinelli's latest book, the Hokey Pokey is much more than a children's song and dance. Hokey Pokey is the name of a magical universe where kids are in charge — no adults in sight. There are herds of bikes, endless cartoons, a cuddle station and dessert for lunch every day.
But one morning a boy named Jack wakes up and something is different. His bike is gone. His best buddies seem baby-ish. Even girls, which every boy in Hokey Pokey knows are gross, maybe don't seem so bad anymore. Off in the distance, Jack hears a train whistle. It's coming to take him away.
Spinelli, the Newbery Medal-winning author of Maniac Magee, Stargirl, Wringer and many other books for kids and teens, joins NPR's Rachel Martin to discuss his latest, bittersweet story about growing up and leaving childhood behind.
On what the world of Hokey Pokey looks like
"I'm not sure why, but for some reason it felt to me that the right kind of landscape for this place where kids live has a kind of Old-West feel to it. So you have items like the Great Plains and bluff; it has a definite feel of the Old West."
On the significance of Jack's bike
"It's his identity; it's kind of like his horse. In the old Westerns, where the movie ends not with the cowboy kissing the girl, but with kissing his horse and going off into the sunset. So I decided that, not only should there be one bike, but that there should be a herd of them. In Hokey Pokey, bikes are kind of more than bikes alone. They become mustangs, they become creatures that rip up the dust as they gallop across the Great Plains."
On the key to writing a good kid insult
"[The key] is putting yourself in the place of the insulter and the insultee, and thinking what's going to bother them the most. In one of those exchanges I wound up with them calling each other the ultimate bad word, and that was him calling her a 'girl' and her calling him a 'boy.' "
On the 'otherworldly' setting of Hokey Pokey
"It's otherworldly from our point of view. As I see it, through the eyes of a kid, it's certainly not otherworldly at all. This is the real world to these kids, as expressed by the father of Jack toward the end of the book when he says, 'Kids live in their own little world.' Who hasn't said that? And that kind of got me thinking, and one thing led to another until we have this little book here called Hokey Pokey."